Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Words in vogue: Feedback

"Feedback" is a term borrowed from electronics, which isn't my forte, but if I have understood it correctly it means that information from a past occurrence is "fed" into the circuit or system to change or influence the next event. It is such a ubiquitous word now that its origins have been forgotten. Once upon a time it was not a word you ever heard, and I can remember thinking when I first heard it that it must have something to do with regurgitation - which, given the frequency with which our "feedback" is now invited, may not after all be far from the truth. Almost every activity today seems to involve the filling in of surveys, the often very arbitrary allocation of stars to just about anything, and the opportunity to let off steam. As commercial organisations try to gather information on their customers, they seem to be expecting those customers to spend a lot of time commenting on their products.

No one would question that companies and other services shouldn't aim to improve their services, but I wonder if one important element is not sometimes lost in the current "feedback" fetish: that it is supposed to contain actual information, not simply somebody's prejudices, or personal opinions which may not be based on any facts whatsoever. There are many surveys around at the moment inviting comments on public services, for instance (particularly ones which are under threat). People are told that there is less money to spend and, if they persist in saying that they would like to keep their existing services, are invited to suggest other economies, but often not with any hard facts about the budgets involved. It's an invitation for anyone to suggest that things they don't use themselves should be cut instead. Another peril for the public sector is the retreating of the state: central funds are cut, but locally that might mean that at the same time people are paying more (whether in council tax or in university tuition fees) - and it's not reasonable to expect every member of the public or student filling in surveys and providing "feedback" to be politically aware enough to know this.

It's a fairly unscientific process in the commercial world too. Book "reviews" on the best known book sites (such as Amazon and Goodreads) are the personal opinion of individuals, no more, no less - yet their prejudices might unduly influence the "rating" of an author, and if that author hasn't attracted many reviews (= opinion pieces) a negative one will have a disproportionate effect. This is obvious to many of us, and it doesn't mean we can't enjoy some of the reviews and sometimes value the opportunity to give our own opinion about books we have or haven't enjoyed, but it all needs to be taken with a generous dose of salt. If somebody doesn't like the idea that there are people in the United Kingdom who speak the Gaelic language on a daily basis, that's their personal opinion, not a valid criticism of a book set in the Outer Hebrides which makes this fact a part of the story. It doesn't mean the "feedback" is telling you anything at all other than that the reader has a certain set of opinions which don't coincide with those of the author of the book. I think authors should try to ignore these things, but that is easier said than done, especially if you might be at a stage in your career when you can't be sure that it won't make a difference.

Try remembering a B&B or hotel which you have stayed at and thought was perfectly acceptable, and then go and look at what some people have said about it on Tripadvisor. There are legitimate criticisms, of course, but there are many unreasonable people out there who seem to think that all hotels should be redecorated every year, that spiders in an English hotel in the autumn are somehow to be avoided in well-run establishments, and that bed linen should be changed daily. Some of the comments made must be very hurtful for small businesses working hard and trying to keep going in an unfriendly economic climate.

Then there's the irritation factor. Every time you visit some websites, or so it seems, you are biffing away pop-up messages wanting you to give feedback. It will only take ten minutes! We value your opinion! Isn't there any way these things could at least not pop up until you have had a chance to look at the thing? Even worse, shops which bombard you with emails requesting reviews for everything you buy. Start going down that route and you find yourself stumbling over more and more hurdles. You must have a password, AND a pen name, which must not be the same as anyone else's (four attempts later you hit on something nobody else has used), and then your review is too short, or too long. Excuse me, I don't actually work for your shop, so how about not making it so difficult!

One obvious other problem with all this is that it almost invites negativity. I recently filled in an official survey about a library service in which one of the questions related to what were the deficiencies of the service and how could it be improved. I left the question blank, but the survey wouldn't allow this - so I found a positive way of answering, but surely the question is framed in such a way that expects fault to be found? One recent question in a survey at my own place of work was answered along the lines of "I think the library is fantastic - of course you can never have everything you want and in an ideal world there would be more [books, facilities], but it is great" - and this was recorded as a negative response. You have to be very careful what answers you give, and think of the motivation of the people who might analyse them!

I'm going to be a bit more circumspect in 2014 in how much time I spend on surveys generally, and I'm going to be very careful about how I answer any leading questions. I'm also going to be very sure not to let off steam in a way that might damage someone's career or the service they are trying to provide, unless there is a genuine reason for negativity which I can back up with real facts and information. Generally, I'd like to make a plea for less spite and less malice in reviewing, across the spectrum of commercial and public spheres - and for a more cautious approach in interpreting "feedback".